Used electronic devices have been recycled in a nationwide effort to produce the Olympic medals for the Tokyo 2020 Games. The project plans to set a precedent for future Olympic Games.
There’s no more prestigious athletic award than Olympic gold, and at the Tokyo Olympics, the top competitors will take home medals with surprising origins. This year’s gold, silver, and bronze Olympic and Paralympic medals were produced from recycled small electronic devices like cell phones.
Over a span of two years, the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project collected 78 985 tons of electronic devices, including 6.21 million cell phones, from across Japan to produce the 5 000 Olympic medals that will be awarded in Tokyo. The gold, silver, and bronze elements of the devices were obtained through smelting, a process that involves heating and melting to extract a base metal.
As the athletes take to the podium and, with a slight bow, have their medals placed around their necks, they will be happy to have placed in the top three. For the people behind the Tokyo Medal Project, they’ll be happy that those Olympic medals are there in the first place. For the people of Japan, the project offered a unique opportunity to be a part of the Games.
“The campaign called on the public to donate obsolete electronic devices for the project. We are grateful for everyone’s cooperation,” said Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Hitomi Kamizawa.
The project capitalised on the fact that billions worth of precious metals such as gold and silver, which are used in electronic devices, get discarded each year globally thanks to people simply dumping or burning their gadgets instead of ensuring they are properly collected and recycled.
A recycling supply chain
“There was a two-year national effort in Japan to collect enough recycled material to produce the 5 000 bronze, silver, and gold medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Up to 90% of Japanese cities, towns, and villages participated by setting up donation pick-up sites where hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens donated their old electronic devices. The recycling campaign produced 32kgs of gold, 3 500kgs of silver and 2 200s of bronze. All from nearly 80 tons of small electrical devices such as old phones and laptops,” said Kamizawa.
Although recycling efforts like these often seem straightforward, the medal project had to engage the national government, thousands of municipalities, companies, schools and other local communities. One of the primary companies involved was the Renet Japan Group whose business philosophy revolves around sustainability.
“We developed a waste management movement for the medal project with the cooperation of many stakeholders, from the Japanese government to local communities,” said Toshio Kamakura, a director of thecRenet Japan Group.
“When the project was launched in April 2017, there were just about 600 municipalities on board. By the end of the project in March 2019, that figure had risen to more than 1 600. There was a major public relations campaign, and collection points were set up to make it easier for the people to contribute,” said Kamakura.
Collecting the used devices was just the first step. Following a process of dismantling, extracting and refining by contractors, the recycled material was then moulded into Junichi Kawnishi’s design concept, a design that beat out 400 other entries in a competition held by Tokyo 2020.
The bigger picture
While the Japanese will be the first to have all of the Olympic medals made out of recycled material, the concept is not new. In the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, 30% of the sterling silver to make the gold and silver medals were obtained from recycled materials such as car parts and mirror surfaces.
Looking ahead to the Paris Games in 2024, where social change and enhancing the environment are among the main themes, there are hopes that the Tokyo 2020 Medal Project will set a precedent.
When it comes to the environmental aspect Kamakura thinks it is necessary to continue in order to build a more sustainable material society.
A record 53.6 million tons (Mt), or 7.3 kilograms per person of electronic waste, equivalent to 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, was produced globally in 2019, making it the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, according to the United Nations. E-waste has surged by more than a fifth in the past five years amid growing demand for electronic gadgets, mostly with short life cycles and few options for repair.
Less than a fifth of the scrap ends up being properly collected and recycled, posing serious environmental and health risks.